This week Mark Naison took an axe to the Peer Assistance and Review program, citing research done by Brian Crowell, a math teacher in Berkeley, California. Crowell states that his research has shown that teachers who are outspoken, and those who are over 55, are of color, and those who are expensive, are the ones most likely to be referred to PAR.
I have a somewhat different perspective on the program, having served for one year on Oakland’s PAR Joint Committee, and for two years as a Consulting Teacher, responsible for observing and coaching teachers who had been referred to the program by their administrators. This experience does not mean every PAR program is run perfectly, and that there is no possibility that the program might be misused. But I think the situation is more complex than what we are hearing.
First of all, it is important to understand how PAR programs operate. The state of California began providing categorical funds for school districts about 15 years ago which allowed them to set up PAR programs. That funding has now been shifted into the general fund, so any districts that continue to maintain PAR programs do so with general funds. The PAR program is administered by a Joint Committee, with representatives appointed by the teachers union, and with administrators. In Oakland, there were four teachers and three administrators on the JC.
The purpose of a PAR program is to allow for the termination, remediation or exoneration of teachers who receive poor evaluations. The administration is contending that while the referred teacher may not actually violate their contract or the state education code, they are simply ineffective as teachers. This process takes at least two years to complete – one year of the initial poor evaluation and referral to PAR, and a subsequent year – or two – of observation and intervention by the PAR Consulting Teacher. Here is how it works (as practiced in Oakland):
Tenured teachers who receive unsatisfactory evaluations may be referred by their administrator to the PAR program. That means their evaluations are sent over to the PAR program, where they are reviewed. If the evaluations were done properly, meaning all required components and observations were completed, and deadlines met, then the referred teacher is assigned to the caseload of a Consulting Teacher. The Consulting Teacher is then given the task of both observing and assisting the referred teacher, with two goals. The goal of the observations is to create a clear record of what is happening in that teacher’s classroom, in relation to the evaluation criteria – which are based on the California Standards of the teaching profession. The Consulting Teacher observes instruction in the referred teacher’s classroom once every week. After a few months, one has a very good idea what sort of teaching is going on. The second goal is to offer support and assistance, so that the teacher can avoid another poor evaluation. This means the CT has regular meetings with a referred teacher, and offers help gathering resources, lesson planning, or whatever seems to be needed.
In April, the CT prepares a report for the Joint Committee, detailing what was observed and the work that had been done with each referred teacher. The JC then decides what recommendation to make. There are three possible outcomes. A referred teacher could be recommended to exit the program successfully, meaning they get a clear record as far as PAR is concerned. They could be recommended to continue for a second year of coaching. Or they could be exited from the program unsuccessfully, if there is not much evidence of improvement. In cases where they are exited unsuccessfully, they are eligible for termination if the administration wishes to pursue that. It should be noted that the PAR process does not mean that a teacher has given up their union representation in defending them against termination. Teachers still have full union representation.
There are several possibilities when someone is referred to PAR. It is possible that the teacher was performing reasonably well, and for some reason ran afoul of the principal. In the three years I was involved with PAR we saw several instances where this appeared to be the case. In those cases, the CT witnessed good teaching taking place, and reported this to the Joint Committee, who would exit the person successfully.
It is possible someone was struggling, but with the intervention of the PAR coach, they would improve. Again, this person would be exited successfully, and not be subject to termination on the basis of their original poor evaluation.
It is also possible that the referred teacher does not, for whatever reason, improve much.
Here is what that might look like. I worked with a teacher who, on a regular basis, would send about half the class to stand in the hall or on the schoolyard when they were off task. He would leave them there, unsupervised, for ten or twenty minutes at a time, sometimes even forgetting they were out there. His idea of instruction was to project a scrolling image of the textbook on the wall, as an iPod recording read the text. The students had copies of the text and were supposed to fill in every fifth word. I purchased materials so he could do a simulated archaeological dig with his students. He never touched them. When I asked him why, he said his students were “too low” for such interactive activities.
This teacher had two years to respond to coaching. His teaching was observed not two or three times a year, but on a weekly basis. He got access to resources, help planning, management strategies – but he did not make any major changes. After his second year of coaching he was exited from PAR, and took an early retirement.
If PAR programs are run well, with active leadership from the teachers union, and responsible consulting teachers, they provide a check and balance to the evaluation process. If a principal is attempting to persecute someone for being a thorn in the side of administration, then the consulting teacher is likely to observe nothing wrong with that teacher’s instruction. The results of that observation will vindicate the teacher. And as I said, there were several times during my three years with Oakland’s PAR program, where this occurred. If, on the other hand, a teacher is not serving students well, then the PAR program offers that teacher an opportunity to get some support and guidance.
Readers of this blog know that I am not a big fan of the pursuit of “a seat at the table” for teachers, when that seat is merely symbolic, and does not have any real influence. The seat at the PAR table does have some meaning. PAR programs can be used to defend teachers from capricious administrative action.
And we have to look at what we are saying if we completely reject PAR as a nefarious collaboration with administration. We end up abdicating any role in the process by which teachers are evaluated and terminated – other than absolute opposition in every case.
I agree with those who say the phenomenon of “bad teachers” has been blown way out of proportion by corporate reformers. “Bad teachers” are not the source of our major challenges in education, and I firmly oppose any witch hunts for them. However, the fact that “bad teachers” are being used as a bogeyman to destroy due process from the right does not mean we ought to join in destroying due process from the left. The PAR program can be an important and valuable part of due process.
There may indeed be evidence of some discriminatory patterns that should be investigated. In Oakland, schools get their budgets according to the number of students they enroll, so administrators have an incentive to rid their schools of more highly paid teachers, who might cost them significantly more than a beginning teacher.
If teacher unions are not acting as they should to ensure that PAR programs operate with integrity, then members should get active around this concern. But there are teachers who ought not to be teaching. It is indeed primarily the job of the administration to evaluate and follow due process to deal with this. If we want administrators to have the sole prerogative in this process, then we should abandon PAR. But I think that would be a mistake.
We need to use a bit of forethought here. What would be the result of the elimination of PAR programs? Would administrators then be unable to fire teachers when they have poor evaluations? I doubt it! It is far more likely that the elimination of PAR programs would REMOVE the opportunity for those teachers to have peers review their evaluation, and make the termination process that much less fair. Our challenge is to take responsibility for the integrity of the program, not just trash it because problems exist.